Schools, counties lobby to keep forest revenue

Published 6:00 am Friday, February 8, 2008

School and county boards around the state are signing petitionsto lobby the federal government for the reinstatement of the SecureRural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, a governmentstipulation that provides funding to counties and school districtsfor national forest acreage within their districts.

The revenue provided by the act is shared within each county.The county itself deposits half of the funding and splits the otherhalf evenly between local school boards.

The act, created in 1908 to offset revenue lost by counties thatlost the right to develop protected national forest land, wasremoved from legislation by Congress in December.

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If it is not reinstated, counties and school districts acrossthe state could lose significant funding amounts, several schooland county officials said. The 36 school districts affected by theact’s disappearance stand to lose a total of almost $4 million infederal funds, with county funding losses potentially double thatamount.

If the act is not passed, Franklin County and its lone schooldistrict, which split the revenue evenly, will suffer the largestfunding decrease in the state.

In the 2006-2007 school year, Franklin County received slightlymore than $1.2 million in federal and state funds due to its landincluded within the Homochitto National Forest. The forest coversaround one-third of the county.

Officials there have already voted to send their petitions toThird District U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering.

“This is a situation we are looking at very closely,” saidFranklin County School District Superintendent Dr. GradyFleming.

The Franklin County school board passed a resolution to send thepetition on Jan. 22.

“We stand to lose a substantial amount of money. It’s going tobe a crunch in our budget, and we’re going to have to do someserious revamping if we do lose that money,” Fleming said. “Wecan’t tax the land, of course, no resources are coming in from theforest, and it takes up so much of our county.”

Fleming said the $616,091 his district may lose is theequivalent of the salaries of at least 10 teachers.

“We may able to avoid losing that many – we may not lose any atall,” he said. “We’re gonna have to sit down with our budget andsee what we can cut back on in other areas. We’re not sure where wecan cut back. That’s what we’re butting heads about right now -looking at our options.”

While the effects of the lost revenue on school boards couldmean termination of teachers and cuts for school programs, the lossfor counties could lead to a deterioration in transportation, ascounties use the forest revenue for road and bridge upkeep.

“If we don’t get this, it’s gonna be bad,” said Franklin CountyChancery Clerk Jill Gilbert. “It’s a scary situation. We need it sobadly.”

Franklin County officials have decided to act upon their need,taking the petition request a step further. Along with the petitionto Pickering, Fleming, Gilbert, county supervisors and otherofficials are planning a trip to Washington sometime in early Marchto speak to the congressman face to face.

Officials in Lincoln County, with only a small amount of theHomochitto National Forest in the northwest corner of the county,stand to lose much less revenue than their neighbors in FranklinCounty. But the total amount awarded to the county is more than$100,000, and local officials have already begun to rally.

During its meeting on Monday, the Lincoln County School Boardpassed the resolution to petition the federal government .

“We’ve been used to getting that money, using it to operate ourdistrict – and now it’s not there,” said Superintendent TerryBrister.

The county school district receives about $25,000 of the forestrevenue.

“You never want to lose $25,000,” said Cheryl Shelby, thedistrict’s business manager. “You can just about fund a first-yearteacher with that amount. We will certainly be one of thosecounties that lobbies for this funding.”

The Brookhaven School District is also planning to officiallyrequest its 25 percent of the county funding, which is also about$25,000, at its next board meeting on Feb. 26.

“I will be presenting the petition to our board at the nextmeeting,” said Superintendent Lea Barrett. “Every resource issomething we account for and want to maximize. The loss of thisresource will have some impact on some of the additional suppliesand programs that we can afford to do right now.”

The Lincoln County Board of Supervisors voted to send itspetition during a meeting on Jan. 22. The loss of $50,000 certainlywould not cripple the county, but officials have grown accustomedto transforming that money into asphalt and concrete.

“I mean, $50,000 is $50,000,” said County Administrator DavidFields. “It’s not something that we couldn’t overcome, but wecertainly want to continue to get it.”

Chancery Clerk Tillmon Bishop agreed.

“We never want to lose funding that is available,” Bishop said.”We’d still maintain the roads, but that portion of the money wouldhave to come from some other source. Any help we can get from othersources is that much less that we would have to get fromtaxation.”

Officials from both counties are confident that the Secure RuralSchools and Community Self-Determination Act will be passed in timeto aid them during the next fiscal year. Even if Congress does passthe act, the current dance with disaster has taught local officialsa lesson.

“If it passes, we’ll go on and keep doing what we’re doing,”Fleming said. “If we get this, we can relax for a while until itcomes up again. But we now know that this is a constantthreat.”